In a museum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, sits a bright-yellow 1976 Mitsubishi Galant GTO having a colorful tail fin, detailed in bright green and scarlet. It’s not parked outside the building; rather, it has pride of place int the main gallery, complete with a rope surround and a spotlight. But this is not La Gioconda, and you’re not in the Louvre. This is Affandi’s Ride, the car in which perhaps the most crucial Indonesian artist of the 20th century roared around the city until he passed away in 1990; and you’re in the Affandi Museum, a jumble of buildings along the Gajah Wong River that Affandi constructed himself. His paintings-wild landscapes and inciteful, almost psychedelic portraits-still fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it’s his crazy muscle car that stays with you, so idiosyncratic and unexpected in a museum. A cultural surprise, just like Yogyakarta itself.
Placed in the eastern a part of Java-Indonesia’s fifth-largest island and the world’s most populous-Yogyakarta is the country’s nexus of traditional arts. Additionally it is the 17,000-island archipelago’s most-visited destination after Bali, a fact which includes much related to its proximity to the extraordinary Buddhist temples of Borobudur and the equally impressive Hindu ones of Prambanan, both under an hour’s drive away.
Wayang kulit, Indonesia’s intricate shadow puppetry, was born here greater than a thousand years ago. So was batik, several hundred later; paket tour jogja designs-complex geometrical and graphic patterns, usually painted in rich browns and deep blues on white-are considered one of the most beautiful by textile collectors. (Some were exclusive to Javanese royalty; commoners continue to be forbidden to wear them in some tombs and palaces.) In Kota Gede, Yogyakarta’s old town, built greater than 400 years back through the immensely wealthy Mataram sultanate, the streets are really narrow that they need to be navigated on foot or by tuk-tuk; often you barely need to reach your arms out for your fingertips to graze the walls on either side.
But Yogya, as locals consider it, can also be the incubator for Indonesia’s next generation of artists and gatekeepers of culture. The international enthusiasm for the country since its first democratically elected president, Joko Widodo, took his seat last fall is dovetailing with all the perennial hunger among art collectors for the Next Big Thing. Because of this if you’re interested in the contemporary art of Asia, Indonesia is definitely a interesting place right now. The reinstitution (following a seven-year absence) of the Indonesia Pavilion on the 2013 Venice Biennale-underwritten by billionaire Indonesian-Chinese businessman Budi Tek, whose collection includes functions by Anselm Kiefer and Anish Kapoor together with others by Agus Suwage, Eko Nugroho, and Puto Sutwijaya, some of their own country’s biggest artists-was actually a major statement.
The city’s Biennale is, at 26 years, Asia’s longest-running; however it is Art Fair Jogja, inaugurated in the year 2011, which has garnered international attention using its commissioned thematic exhibitions. Last year, delegates from Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Gagosian, and Tate Modern were spotted scouting at the Taman Budaya Art Center searching for another Nyoman Masriadi-a Yogyakarta-based Balinese whose The Man from Bantul (The Ultimate Round) triptych, a political allegory featuring three of his signature monumental black-skinned figures in a boxing ring, sold at auction in Hong Kong not too long ago for more than $1 million.
Masriadi is now represented by Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City, which showcased his work prominently at Art Basel Miami Beach in December; Nugroho has already established recent exhibitions in Berlin (at Arndt), Hong Kong (Lehmann Maupin), and Newport Beach, California (the Orange County Museum of Art). Gagosian cares enough regarding the market to get installed an agent in Jakarta full time last year. And Ben Brown, an English dealer with galleries in London’s Mayfair and also the Pedder Building in Hong Kong, brought a show of major contemporary Indonesian artists for the U.K. in 2012, less than a year after the exhibition “Indonesian Eye: Fantasies & Realities” on the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. “It’s definitely a strong market,” Brown says, not only in Asia but globally. “I’d attribute it in part to the fact that China now looks overpriced, as well as the Indonesian collectors making a big mark on the international scene.”
While most of these artists have lived and worked in Yogya (or still do), the area is less about watching the marketplace and much more about quiet creativity. Which has been a crucial part of their life for hundreds of years: The town is home to both Indonesia’s oldest and most prestigious fine arts academy and also the erstwhile Kingdom of Java’s richest sultans (meaning by far the most talented artisans and performers historically based themselves here).
While you explore, you’ll discover art in enclaves of surprising quiet and sweetness amid the hornet’s nest of traffic. (With a population of just under 400,000, Yogyakarta is pretty chaotic-and therefore best navigated xrfvih a personal car and driver.) At Langgeng Art Foundation, founder/director Deddy Irianto hosts exhibits, residencies for visiting artists, and commissioned projects in a combination of airy white cubes punctuated by a café plus an internal garden. A 20-minute ride for the fringe of town brings you to the Sarang Building, which features emerging local talent and is also worth a visit for its gorgeous galleries and outdoor exhibition pavilion alone.
Cemeti Art Foundation, which helped put Yogyakarta on the contemporary map when it launched within the mid-’90s, operates out of a bungalow near the old city. Its Dutch founder, Mella Jaarsma, states that Yogya outguns Jakarta among serious aficionados, inspite of the latter’s push to dominate the gallery scene. “The money might be in Jakarta,” she says, “but the genuine interest is here now.”